Thursday, November 21, 2013

This and That. Ethnic Authenticity, Thanksgiving, and One Short Recipe

Sorry again TERP Muffins for my lack of an appearance lately.  Life is a whirlwind these days.  I hardly have time to sit down at the computer at these days, and when I do, it’s always to make narcissistic blogs about my weight loss progress.  My time in the kitchen has been utterly lacking in creativity with me relying pretty heavily on old standbys like turkey meatloaf or turkey burgers or turkey Bolognese over spaghetti, or turkey chili, or a roast chicken.  I think I made a lamb chop and some sole filets last week too. 

I have probably spent way too much time eating out as well.  I haven’t eaten at any new restaurants, so I can’t even review anything.  However, restaurants have been weighing on my mind lately.
How do you feel about ethnic foods?  What draws you to them?  What do you hope to gain?  Are you looking for a connection to another culture, are you looking to expand your culinary horizons and increase your foodie cred, or are you just looking for something that tastes good?

For example, one of my favorite local restaurants is an Italian restaurant.  I use the word “Italian” lightly.  It’s Italian food interpreted by Italian immigrants to the United States and further refined by future generations to suit the American palate.  It’s what you might call Italian-American or just a “red sauce joint.”  It bears very little resemblance to the home cooking I ate in Italy.  Red sauce Italian tends to be rather homogeneous, but it’s hard to pin down “Italian” cooking as food can vary from region to region.  There are restaurants that do try to be more authentic and imitate the food of a particular region, and I enjoy them, but their existence doesn’t negate my enjoyment of Italian-American food done well.

There are plenty of foodies out there who would disdain such a restaurant not because the food is bad, but simply because it's not truly Italian.  It's not the Tuscan farmhouse cooking I ate on that Italian trip.  It's not authentic Bolognese ragu.  It's just meat sauce.  Let's not even get started on pizza, which is always best in New York anyway.

Foodies who think an Italian-American "red sauce joint" is a special cuisine unto itself do exsit.  They will admit to enjoying it.  However, very few of these places pass muster because even Italian-American cooking has to be prepared a certain way.  You need an actual Italian grandparents in the kitchen before they accept it.

Asian restaurants of all stripes suffer from this type of reinterpreation, and then rejection.  My neighborhood is filled with "Pan-Asian" restaurants that are mostly extensive sushi bars with some typical Chinese menu items, some teriyaki meat dishes, a noodle soup or three, and one or two Thai offerings.  Food snobs often take offense that a single cuisine can be so badly watered down or else take offense that one can distill the multiple cuisines of a very large continent into one menu.  While the politically correct points are well made, does that make the food any worse?

Even single Asian cuisines can't escape the scrutiny of authenticity seekers.  When I go see a show at the New World Stages, I always have dinner at Bann. It's a Korean restaurant that supposedly has fusion elements to it.  I don't know enough about Korean cuisine to know just how fusion it is and how far it slips from authenticity. I do know food snobs love to hate Bann because it's not "real" Korean.

The single element that keeps me going back to Bann or Chef Antonio or any of the Pan-Asian places on my block is simple.  The food tastes good.  I enjoy it not because it purely reflects the culture from which it came.  I enjoy it simply for the taste.  Is my taste too "American" and that's why I only like Americanized versions of ethnic dishes?  I don't know.  I do know that if I enjoy a meal somewhere, I am not going to let my enjoyment of it be hindered because it contains a few ingredients or techniques not found in its native country.  Do you ever wonder if the chefs prefer it that way?  Maybe it's not authentic because the chef has decided he or she really likes how certain inauthentic ingredients or techniques in the dishes.

Have Americans become too obsessed with food as the epitome of a culture and the best way for Americans to connect to the exotic?  What are we eating when we eat at an ethnic restaurant, or even eating a meal in a foreign country?  No matter what, we are eating the best of what that culture has to offer unless we're living in someone else's home. We're eating occasion food.  We're eating the stuff that is served to company.  What we are eating in the best and most authentic restaurants possible, we are still eating differently from what the average family eats every day.

Soleil Ho argues that one of the problems is that American chefs are interpreting the cuisines to the detriment of authenticity, not to make it more suitable to American palates, but to increase the snob appeal.

The menus usually include little blurbs about how the chefs used to backpack in the steaming jungles of the Far East (undoubtedly stuffing all the herbs and spices they could fit into said backpacks along the way, for research purposes), and were so inspired by the smiling faces of the very generous natives—of which there are plenty of tasteful black-and-white photos on the walls, by the way—and the hospitality, oh, the hospitality, that they decided the best way to really crystallize that life-changing experience was to go back home and sterilize the cuisine they experienced by putting some microcilantro on that $20 curry to really make it worthy of the everyday American sophisticate. American chefs like to talk fancy talk about “elevating” or “refining” third-world cuisines, a rhetoric that brings to mind the mission civilisatrice that Europe took on to justify violent takeovers of those same cuisines’ countries of origin. In their publicity materials, Spice Market* uses explicitly objectifying language to describe the culture they’re appropriating: “A timeless paean to Southeast Asian sensuality, Spice Market titillates Manhattan’s Meatpacking District with Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s piquant elevations of the region’s street cuisine.” The positioning of Western aesthetics as superior, or higher, than all the rest is, at its bottom line, an expression of the idea that no culture has value unless it has been “improved” by the Western Midas touch. If a dish hasn’t been eaten or reimagined by a white person, does it really exist?

It seems in this case the chef is trying to prove himself as both a seasoned traveler, a culinary adventurer, as well as the ultimate creative chef.  I can see how it would insult someone who came from that culture and it might be something many food snobs seeking the most sophisticated ethnic cuisines wouldn't think about.

But then there are the foodies who crave authenticity in food in order to prove their own authenticity?  Do they feel the need to show just how adventurous they are? As Ho puts it:

The foodies’ cultural cachet depends on being the only white American person in the room, braving inhumane spice levels and possible food poisoning in order to share with you the proper way to handle Ethiopian injera bread. But they can’t cash in on it unless they share their discoveries with someone else, thereby jeopardizing that sense of exclusivity. Thus, happiness tends to elude the cultural foodie.

Are we all trying to be Anthony Bourdains or Andrew Zimmermans always trying to push the envelope of what and where we are willing to eat?

The truth is for me it doesn't really matter.  When I am looking to try a new restaurant I look at menus and see if they sound interesting and tasty.  I don't worry about whether or not they eat mangoes in China.  Globalization has made isolated, pure, cuisine almost impossible.  Think of it this way, we don't question the authenticity of tomato-based sauces on Italian food, but we forget that tomatoes are not native to Italy.  Spam didn't originate in Hawaii.  Chili peppers are not native to Asia, but we hate to think of Chinese or Thai cuisines without them.

How about we all just enjoy a plate of food and not worry about the recipe.

*I have eaten at Spice Market and enjoyed it.

And now for something completely different...

Thanksgiving is upon us.  I hope all of my friends reading this blog are planning to spend a plentiful meal with family and loved ones.  

My own Thanksgiving plans are doubtful.  I was planning to fly to Chicago, as I often do on Thanksgiving, to have dinner with my brother-in-law and his family.  It's always a great trip filled with great food.  We had our hotel and flight all set.

Now with the horrible storms heading to the east coast, our trip is doubtful.  We doubt our flight won't be cancelled.  Chances are we're going to be spending Thanksgiving at home, with no one to share it with.  We will eat our Thanksgiving dinner at the Diner, knowing we at least have each other.

I have mixed feelings about our dinner plans.  The diner is open 24/7/365, so it's not as if it being open is anything unusual.  They are open Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's Day, Easter, Groundhog Day and every holiday in between.  It still doesn't sit well with me.  I am among those who refuse to shop on Thanksgiving day.  I will boycott WalMart (I refuse to shop there anyway).  I will boycott Best Buy.  I think it's a terrible abuse of the overworked and underpaid workforce as well as a hijacking of Thanksgiving.  Is patronizing a diner that's open on the holiday any better?  I know it's open all of the time and people will go there anyway, but I still feel bad.  At least it's a small, family-run business with a fair amount of long-time loyal staff.  They aren't a big corporation doing its best to take advantage of the workforce while raking in millions.

This year it seems so much harder not to think of those less fortunate.  What's my big hardship?  I don't get to board a plane, stay a weekend at a hotel, eat in expensive restaurants, and see family?  At least I'll have a meal and I have a husband to share it with.

Too many people this year aren't so lucky.  WalMart is paying its workers so little that it has food drives by employees for employees (instead of just paying them enough to buy their own Thanksgiving dinners in the first place).  More low-wage workers are depending on SNAP, but as SNAP benefits have been cut across the board, there isn't much to live off of these days

Please during this holiday season don't forget to give a thought, a few dollars, some time, or a few cans of food to those less fortunate.  None of us really knows how many paychecks we are away from the breadlines.  Don't judge those who have so much less than you.  Give them a helping hand.  You never know if that person needing help might be you some day and you will be glad someone returned the favor.

And now for the recipe...

I threw this one together on a "casual Friday" recently, just trying to so something simple and different with chicken.

I know this is a terrible photo.  I'm lucky I remembered I had a camera this night let alone set up the light box and props.   I served with a nice cauliflower mash.

Apple and 5-Spice Chicken Breasts

  • 6 thin chicken breasts cutlets
  •  1 onion, diced
  • 1 golden delicious apple, sliced
  • 1/4 cup brandy
  • 1/2 tsp 5-spice powder
  • Juice and zest of 1 orange
  • 2 Tbl olive oil
  • Salt and pepper

Heat olive oil in a large pan.  Over low heat cook onions until soft.  Add apple and cook until apple is soft.  Remove from pan.

Brown chicken breasts on both sides, about 5 minutes.

Mix together juice, brandy, 5-spice powder, and zest.  Add that to the pan along with the apples and onions.  Cook another 5 minutes and serve.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

My Annual War on Pumpkin Continues - Un-Pumpkin Pie

I know I haven't been blogging much, nor have I been visiting many blogs.  I think anyone who has been reading this blog for a while knows why.  October and November are pumpkin and squash season, and this time of year no one seems to want to cook with anything else, or read blog posts about anything else, so why even bother posting?

Let me restate it.  I hate pumpkin.  In fact, I hate squash in general.  The only squashes I can tolerate are the summer squashes like zucchini and yellow squash, and they have to be prepared properly.  "Prepared properly" does not mean sticking them inside my cakes, cookies, muffins, and quick breads.  In fact, I don't think vegetables of any kind belong in desserts (especially carrots - bleah).  Also fruits disguised as vegetables don't belong in my dessert (no tomato soup cake for me.)

There isn't much I can do about the assault of squash this time of year.  Pumpkin is in everything.  Now I'm even seeing butternut squash in desserts.  Every blog, every magazine, and every restaurant is serving up a heaping helping of squashes in just about every course.

At this point I'm about to curl up in the corner in a fetal ball crying, "Uncle" over and over again.

I know I'm not the only pumpkin hater out there.  I suspect that many of us are simply underground.  It's pointless to fight against the onslaught because it will go on no matter how much we complain.  Then also, by declaring our hatred of pumpkin, we have to be told by these pumpkin lovers just how wrong we are.  We open ourselves up to a lot of criticism and ridicule.

At least the pumpkin madness is temporary.  It fades out after Thanksgiving. Better food obsessions are on the horizon.  If there is anything redeeming about the month of February, it's the emphasis on chocolate in the food world. It almost makes up for October and November.

I started thinking about something.  How many pumpkin lovers actually like pumpkin itself?  I have had some pumpkin desserts I could choke down. It wasn't because of the pumpkin.  It was about the cinnamon and the cream and the cake.  Pumpkin desserts are usually filled with cream and cream cheese and sugar and butter and white flour and sweet spices.  A rich dessert filled with butter and spice can hide almost anything.  Does (barf) pumpkin coffee really taste like pumpkin, or does it just taste like coffee mixed with spices?  Ditto for (gag) pumpkin beer.  I remember carving jack-o-lanterns as a kid and hating the vomitous smell that emanated from inside the pumpkin.  Does anyone think it smells appetizing?  If I gave you a can of pumpkin (which isn't really pumpkin) and a spoon, would you want to chow down?  (I keep thinking about how I used to cut my dog's kibble with canned pumpkin when she needed to lose weight.)  Pumpkin is awful, but cake and pie and custard and cream are all good.  I couldn't stop thinking about how so many of the seasonal pleasures of pumpkin desserts can be obtained without using any pumpkin whatsoever.

So it was back to the kitchen for me.  I wanted to devise a rich, creamy, spicy pie with all of good stuff and none of the bad (i.e. pumpkin).  I wanted an Un-Pumpkin Pie.

I started by baking a rich all-butter pie crust.  For this recipe, I'm going to leave your choice of crust up to you.  I will look the other way if you use one pre-made.

Next I adapted a pastry cream recipe from King Arthur flour.  It was an interesting recipe as it contained both flour and corn starch.  Usually these recipes contain one or the other.  It produced a nice tight custard that didn't take long to thicken.  I mixed mine with brown sugar along with the white.   Then I used the typical spices found in pumpkin pie and then added a splash of rum.

By late Friday evening (so late I didn't bother taking out the light box and getting a better photo), I had my pie. 
I topped it with whipped cream the next morning and took it to the barn with me, using my horse loving friends as guinea pigs.

I would have liked to have taken a photo of a whipped-cream topped slice, but my friends hacked the pie up to bits in taking their slices.  The pie went over really well.  Everyone loved it.  When I explained that it was meant to be like pumpkin pie without the pumpkin, many of them confessed they didn't like pumpkin pie either.  It was something they just felt like they were supposed to like this time of year.

I use Penzey's Vietnamese cinnamon in this recipe, which is a very strong cinnamon.  The cinnamon flavor in the pie is very strong. I worried it might be too much. No one complained though and I simply ditched my plan to add cinnamon to the whipped cream topping.  You might want to play with your spice mix if you think one spice might be too overpowering.

I will definitely make this again as a new tradition in fall desserts.

Un-Pumpkin Pie is the unofficial name, but I'm giving it a nicer name offiically.

Brown Sugar & Spice Cream Pie


  • 1pre-baked pie crust
  • 3 cups whole milk
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup white sugar
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1tsp ground ginger
  • Pinch allspice
  • Pinch nutmeg
  • 1/4 cup cornstarch
  • 1Tbl flour
  • 4 large egg yolks
  • 4 Tbl butter
  • 1/4 cup rum
  • 1cup heavy cream
  • 2 Tbl sifted powdered sugar
  • 1tsp vanilla
In a saucepan combine 2 1/2 cups of milk, sugar, salt, and spices.

In a small bowl combine remaining 1/2 cup of milk, cornstarch, flour, and egg yolks.

Heat milk and saucepan stirring until sugar dissolves and bring to a simmer over medium heat.   Add a small amount of the hot milk mixture to the egg mixture and quickly whisk together.  Strain the egg mixture into the pot and bring to a boil, stirring with a whisk until the custard thickens.  This should happen pretty quickly.

Strain the mixture into a bowl.  Add the rum and the butter.  Allow to cool and pour into the baked pie crust.  Cover with plastic wrap and chill.

In a cold bowl with cold beaters (I put my whipping equipment in the freezer for a half hour before I make whipped cream) beat the cream, powdered sugar, and vanilla until semi-stiff peaks form.  Spread over the surface of the pie and serve.